Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

Real Food For Thought

photo 1Max Watman’s new book brought me back to fifth grade when my friend Debbie gave me half her chicken sandwich and I found a vein in it.

“What’s this?” I asked her when I saw the tiny purple tube protruding from the chicken meat nestled between two pieces of her mother’s homemade bread. She shook her head even though she was no longer surprised at all the things a transplant from the suburbs of Connecticut to the White Mountains of New Hampshire didn’t know, and she explained.

It was the first time I connected chicken with a formerly live animal, probably one I’d seen clucking around in her mother’s coop the week before when I helped Debbie collect eggs. Until then, I associated poultry with what came sealed in plastic wrap at the meat counter when my mother took me shopping. I wanted to put the sandwich down but I was hungry and embarrassed, so I pulled out the vein, closed my eyes and chomped. I don’t remember if it tasted much different from a “store-bought” chicken but I finished it.

In the decades since moving from northern New Hampshire, I’ve consumed flocks of chicken but few have had any remaining veins and most have come from places that sickened me when I saw them exposed on movies like Food Inc.

In his book Harvest, Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, Max Watman writes of his efforts to to get as close to his food supply as he can without being a farmer. I started it because it was a gift from The Distiller who is his friend. I finished it because it made me laugh, wince, and begin to see a way to make friends with food again.

I am in the middle of a crisis when it comes to my relationship with food. The erosion of my faith in the food industry has converged with some health issues and lately I analyze benefits versus risk every time I take a bite of something I used to love unreservedly. Tomatoes. Eggplant (nightshade vegetables with inflammatory properties) Fresh peaches (pesticides). Fried peppers and provolone on crusty Italian semolina bread (nightshade, dairy and wheat gluten). Chicken, hamburgers or, increasingly, any meat at all (raised in inhumane conditions and unresolved issues about eating animals when I could thrive on alternatives).

My mental gyrations are those of a privileged person — one who has never known hunger or been deprived of basic sustenance by factors outside my control. I am grateful which gives rise to shame when I get lost in the dilemma of what to eat. This doesn’t make the food go down any easier.

Watman, on the other hand, is passionate about food. He comes from foodie roots; He was hooked on cooking at nine when he roasted a chicken for his ailing parents who were among the first “locavores.” He’s also a writer, which means he is curious and observant, not afraid to dig deep into a subject or look inward if his journey takes him there. He reads. He tries things.

The first half of “Harvest” takes us through his attempts to find “purity and quality, simplicity and grace” the elements that would make the food he serves friends and family better, to live, as he says later on, “as if I were on a farm but without the farm.” We meet Bubbles the steer he purchases and lets fatten on a Virgina farm while he introduces us to his chickens, “the girls,” his cheese-making efforts, the hunting, the fishing, and, of course, the garden.

Nothing quite goes as planned which, combined with the literature he’d absorbed without quite wanting to, brought him to a crisis in his neighborhood pizza joint. He stared at the familiar menu, utterly unable to think of a single thing he wanted to eat there and believed he had failed.

“When eating out, I had drifted into a weird indecisiveness…I was now well versed on the wretched conditions of our fisheries and the wretched conditions of the fish therein. Steak frites made me think of concentrated feedlots, and chicken in any form made me think of the slurry of filthy water through which the carcasses of the recently slaughtered birds are run to “clean” them and “cool” them.”

The crisis nearly becomes a writer’s crisis until Watman’s wife, Rachel, points out that amid the failures were successes, thriving like volunteer tomatoes amid his disappointments. It’s a good thing too because the moment in the pizza joint leads to a mouth-watering description of a pizza that he goes home and makes himself. He made fresh mozzarella, his own pizza dough — slowly fermented to help his wife digest the wheat — and heated sauce he’d made from tomatoes he’d grown.

These moments when Watman discovers what his search, and his book, are really about kept me turning the pages when I should have been writing, packing for a trip, and about a thousand other things that will hammer me at 3 a.m. tomorrow when I can’t sleep.

I’m not sorry though. How can I be sorry when I get much-needed perspective like this:

“It’s important — drastically so in this age — to approach a fish counter with knowledge of which oceanic fruits are better choices than others. It’s also important not to have a small-scale nervous breakdown every time you want to make chowder.”

Or insights not only to the making of bread but the art of looking:

“Once you begin looking at processes, once you begin thinking about ingredients and techniques, once you know how to look at one thing carefully, you are simply better at looking.”

Or the wisdom that foraging can teach (even when foraging is defined as coming upon black (grey at least) market caviar at a deli):

“I had thought of foraging as a specialty, a hobby for the gastro-fringe, but I came to see that to take up foraging in whatever manner, is to learn to travel in your own place.”

What the pursuit of real food comes down to, Watman shows us, is deciding how we will participate in bringing the food we eat to table. His well-told stories of his own experiences — and the meals along the way — show that even those of us who will never be farmers or hunters or fishermen can do more that we think, have fun doing it, and gain a little balance and wisdom in the process.

See how the Camembert cheese worked out at Max Watman’s Tumblr

And let me know if you’ve been reading any books that make you think differently about food!

 

 

 

 

When I Die, I Want to Become a Tomato

IMG_0400When I die, I want to be composted. I’d like to come back as a tomato.

When I tell my family this, they just sniff and look somewhere past my shoulder, as if I’ve just farted.

If they picture it all, they envision a long process, maggots, turning my body with a shovel, watching me swell and liquify and, of course, trying not to breathe because of the smell. None are Buddhists. None have contemplated a corpse. They don’t want to begin with me.

Fine.

Here’s the solution. I first learned of it when I read Mary Roach’s wonderful book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  She went to Sweden where she interviewed Susanne Wiigh-Masak, a pioneer in the field of ecologically sound burial. After years of research and trying, she has formed a company that will essentially freeze-dry a corpse, turn it into fine powder, remove the harmful metals, and allow the family to mix it in the ground where a tree can be planted above it. To see how it’s done, click here.

I’ve been following this for years and the process is not available in the US. So, I’m working on a low-carbon-footprint way to have my body sent to Sweden and turned into a tree.

How, you might ask, did I come up with this topic for today’s post?

Well, I sat down to write a post that would, in a sparkly, witty way list the top ten things I do with my old manuscripts, rough drafts, and all the paper I’m left with even in this day of keyboards, hard drives, and clouds. I could only come up with five:

1) Grocery lists (when enough white space remains)
2) Pocket notes (instead of index cards when I’m taking walks and am struck by A THOUGHT that must not get away)
3) More rough drafts (when only one side of a page has been printed and can be shoved back into the printer)
4) Foot rest (turns out a rejected manuscript, placed beneath my writing table, is just the right height for achieving an ergonomically correct position).

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5) Worm food.

You read that last one correctly. In my early days as a composter, I invested in set of stacked boxes and a bag of worms so that our kitchen leavings would have a nice place to go and I would have some nice rich worm-generated compost for my gardening. Such as my gardening is.

One of the ingredients for the worm bedding is paper. I’m embarrassed to say that I still have a lot of paper kicking around. Manuscripts, all or part, lie around like bodies in a morgue. Cold, in pieces sometimes, carved up with red lines or black. Stained with whatever I was eating or drinking as I worked.

When I was into vermicomposting, I used to shred my used-up, marked-up pages and put them in the worm bin. And there they’d be, my words clinging to the scraps of paper that each day disintegrated a little more, turned wet and slimy beneath the bodies of worms or brown every time I added coffee grounds, or banana peels, apple cores, food scraps. It’s humbling to see the products of hours of work consumed by worms and microbes. A character’s eyes, or voice sinking into the earth.

Humbling, but also just right. The tree that became paper, becomes worm food, that feeds a tomato, or a tree again.

A proper burial.

That’s all I’m asking for. No ashes. No chemicals. No maggots. No trauma. Just freeze-dried Betsy and a tree. Or a tomato. I’m not fussy.

If you have an innovative use for your rough drafts, or your body, feel free to share!

If you are wondering about the tomato, these are the fruits of our more recent composting labors. Volunteers. Happy accidents. We throw the chunks of compost that are too big or hard for my pots along the sandy stretch of our alley fence and sometimes, beautiful things happen. All by themselves. Not a bad outcome for any of us, right?

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Revisions

Revisions: a promising word that grows out of a hopeful thought: to see again.

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I’ve spent the better part of the past six weeks revising pages I’d “finished” two or three times already. More than once, I have gone still before my computer screen and thanked Allison Hunter who asked me to look again; to see them anew. Those pages are now in her capable hands as she seeks a home for them.

We both know, of course, that, if she does, more revisions are likely. Good. That’s the kind of problem I’d love to have.

I’m grateful for every chance I get to see my work in a new light and make it better. That’s what I tell myself when I take the ax to whole scenes, whole chapters, whole characters. After the shuddering is over, I see with new eyes what remains and what remains to be written.

I wish sometimes I could revise whole scenes from my own life the way I can on the page. Here’s one I’d rewrite:

It’s the end of the summer session during my second year in college. I’m wheeling my two year old and his stroller out of the University of New Hampshire library when I run smack into the teacher and writer who introduced me to my journalism career. The sight of him panics me, in a good way. We rarely chat outside the classroom; he carries himself with reserve, delivers his critiques in short, blunt, phrases. I live in fear that I will disappoint him but I want to connect.

“How was your vacation?” I manage to say.

He is surprisingly forthcoming and serious. “It was good in many ways but very bad towards the end. We were driving in Greece and I hit someone who on a motorcyle.”

“Thank god you were in a car!”

Yes, I said that. Yes, he looked at me as if he was reevaluating everything he’d thought about me. And no, I cannot to this day tell you where that response came from or why it flew out of my mouth so readily.

Or, there was the time my little Mercury Lynx was crammed with five 13-year old boys, fresh from their eighth grade graduation, flush with the spring, a whole year of being at the top of the middle school pecking order, and the girls who had in the last six months or so taken an interest in them. They brayed and squeaked — depending on how kind puberty had been so far — about the girls who liked them. I’d seen the girl my son liked, thirteen with a body going on eighteen. She’d given him some attention. He saw himself going into high school with this woman by his side. Life was good and only going to get better.

I don’t know why but I said, “Enjoy it now. Because next year you’ll all be freshmen and the first thing the girls will do is dump you guys and try to find a senior to go out with.”

My comment was greeted with guffaws of disbelief but of course, we all know what happened. It wasn’t pretty. If I had it to do again, I’d keep my mouth shut.

There are thousands like this. I could make a list of all the days I would revise if I could. On good days, I comfort myself with the knowledge that these are the mistakes I had to make to grow more aware, stronger, more compassionate, more patient.

Like my novel, I am a work-in-progress.

If you are in a sharing mood, feel free to offer moments you’d gladly revise if you could or your experiences with revisions. In my next post, a few words about what to do with all the pages that are cut. If you have some creative ways you’ve put your rough drafts or rejected manuscripts to use, fire away. We’ll pool resources on the next post.

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Limoncello Lessons…Please!

Okay, foodies and mixology mavens. I need your help. I made my first ever batch of limoncello and it looks like this:

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In case it isn’t obvious from the photograph above, my limoncello is not yellow. A sip sometimes yields hints of Pledge cleaner underscored by notes of blecchh. Although I did try it again today and it was, if I closed my eyes, drinkable. Of course, anything, can be swallowed if one is determined enough. I speak as someone who remembers the days of Boone’s Farm apple wine (99 cents!) enjoyed (although rarely sipped) in the fresh mountain air near the Vermont state line.

Back to the limoncello.

A failed batch would be just fine if I were whipping up a batch of cookies that went wrong, or dropped an omelet on the floor. This, however, was so much more.

This was supposed to be a love offering, a celebration of families across two continents and one ocean. I had BIG plans for this limoncello.

Let me explain.

The idea was born during our visit to Italy last fall to see my husband’s family in Pontecorvo, just south of Rome. The centerpiece of our day with them was a meal that started around noon or one and unfolded with love and laughter for the next three hours. At the end, Roberto asked if anyone wanted some limoncello?

Of course. Out came a bottle made by the father of his wife, Maria-Vittoria. Each sip was as perfect as the sunlight that filtered through the windows and blessed the faces of those around the dining table.

I knew I couldn’t recreate the food, or the laughter, or the sweetness of connections regained after many years, but I could, I thought, try to make the limoncello once I got home. I had all the ingredients: my stepdaughter’s lemon tree would provide the lemons. My son would provide the vodka. Maria Vittoria gave me her father’s recipe. This limoncello would be infused with love and family from the West Coast to Pontecorvo.

I waited for the lemons on my stepdaughter’s lemon tree to ripen.

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I put aside a bottle of vodka made by my son’s distillery.

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I peeled each lemon trying very hard (but maybe not hard enough) to get pure lemon strips, no white zest.

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I found an old jar that was big enough and poured the vodka in over the peels.

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Then I waited. Waited some more. I waited two months before opening the jar and draining out the vodka which, alarmingly, was not as yellow as the peels had once been.

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I made the simple syrup and added it.

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I let it steep. I chilled it. And … well, you saw. instead of this:

I got this:

photo 1I know that at least one mistake was using organic sugar, rather then the usual white refined stuff. That could add a caramel tint. But what about the vodka? Some argue only for 100-proof vodka or grain alcohol. Goat vodka is 80 proof. I filtered everything through coffee filters inside strainers but nothing got any clearer. One thing I can say is this: these lemons were untreated. They are so light and fresh, I can eat the peels (before they’ve been soaked in vodka). They are beautiful, always.

I try to tell myself there are lessons in this limoncello, tart reminders:

Nothing is easy as it looks or sounds.

Patience is the essential ingredient (Maybe I should have waited until we had some white sugar in the house).

Failure is part of everything, even labors of love. The only thing we can do is to understand where we went wrong. And begin again.

The lemons should be ripe again in a few more months. In the meantime, I am open to any and all suggestions.

 

 

 

 

 

A Moment of Silence

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery, photograph by Charles Hansen

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery in San Diego. Photograph by Charles Hansen

On Monday, May 26th, the clock will strike 3 p.m. one time zone at a time. Everywhere across the U.S. people will fall silent, together or alone, to remember those who died at war.

A moment of silence can be powerful. I recall this very clearly when the day after the towers fell, my husband and I were in Italy, trying and failing to get home.

The clock struck noon.

All of Milan came to a complete halt to honor those who had died and to offer whatever thoughts and prayers bubble up in that moment of silence. Traffic stopped. The sounds of horns stopped. Computers stopped. Phones were allowed to ring. A woman helping us in a busy office said, “Excuse me.” She stood with all of her colleagues for five minutes saying nothing. Some closed their eyes. Others said a prayer. We were strangers in that room. The thousands below us were strangers. Yet all of us were bound together in that silence filled with awareness and all our hopes, prayers, fears. We were not alone.

Until last year, I never knew about observing Memorial Day with a moment of silence. I knew parades, picnics, sales. I did it. I want to do it again. I would like to do it this year with others even if we are all in our own homes, yards, cars when we join together in a moment of silence to remember those we loved, lost, or never knew but still lost and should have known.

If you are so moved, please leave names or families we can keep in mind as we fall silent tomorrow. If you have a prayer or a thought to share, please go ahead – you may provide the words that another is looking for and needs at this time.

Here is a link to a list of the casualties of two of our most recent wars. Faces, numbers, names: Faces of the Fallen.

Soon enough, it will be time to leave the silence and return to our days, our weeks, our lives. We can still remember, though. We need to.

Here are some links to organizations that help families left behind.

USO: Families of the Fallen 

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (T.A.P.S) 

List of Charities Supporting Soldiers and their Families (compiled by the US Army)

Monday Letters

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The “Kitchen Sink” shortie: all the essentials in a hurry and with love.

It’s five o’clock on Monday morning and my mother sits in bed, knees up, a pad against her thighs, her second cup of coffee steaming within easy reach. Her pen flies across the page in front of her leaving behind a trail of thoughts that have been on her mind for days, minutes, or take shape as she writes.

I can reconstruct this because on more than one visit home back in the early days of my adulthood, I found her there, often with my infant son tucked into the pillows next to her after she’d swooped him up so that I could have a rare extra hour of morning sleep.

“Happy Monday. Hope between you and the numerologist you had a good weekend.” Monday, 1980

These were her “Monday Letters.” She wrote her first one when I left home at 17. As the rest of us tumbled out of the nest, one or two a year, she wrote more. She has written over 1,500 Monday letters to me by my estimation. Add my siblings, step siblings, her godchildren, and fellow travelers she adopted along the way, and we are talking serious writer’s cramp and the death of a forest or two before the advent of email and texts.

“Dear Betsy, a day late and dull stationery to boot and oh dear a lousy pen. Not a very good way to start the day. It’s 6:15.”

Not long ago, I was rooting around in the garage and found a battered cardboard carton labeled “Mom” in black marker. The seams of the box were worn; the top barely able to contain the letters jammed inside. The letters, survivors of my mother’s weekly correspondence, seemed to be pushing their way out of the box to find me. I forgot whatever I’d been looking for and hauled the box into my office and for the next few days, I read them all.

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I picked up each letter with the same combination of eagerness and trepidation I used to feel mid-week when her letters usually arrived.

“Our conversation was most unsatisfactory – to be blamed in all fairness on both of us. I for my part am sorry I always flunk pretty badly when I attempt to contain myself and unfortunately I’ve been containing my opinions on this for a very long time.”

They weren’t always written on a Monday. They weren’t always written before dawn. She used whatever paper she had and whatever time she had between jobs, errands, doctor visits, or when she woke in the middle of the night with someone on her mind.

“I ‘ve been awake since 3 a.m. Thinking of you.”

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They weren’t always fun to read. The letters I found spanned a chunk of late seventies, early eighties when I moved with a man ten years older to the suburbs without getting married and without a job. I went into debt. My son was hospitalized after COBRA ran out. My relationship with my partner slid into a swamp I couldn’t seem to get out off with my self-esteem intact. She called often. We visited when we could. But her letters never stopped coming. Holding one — even the lectures — was like feeling her hand in mine. She couldn’t pull me out but the letters told me she would be there, cheering me on when I finally emerged on my own.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Whatever you do, we love you.”

Each letter was at least one, but often a combination of the following:  hello, weather report, family news, a verbal finger-prod between the shoulder blades, a long-distance hug, wistful wonderings, a mirror, warning, atta-girl, “to-do” list, food for thought, how-to make everything from chicken l’orange for eight to how to manage money. There were lots of letters about money, how I handled it; how I didn’t.

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These recipes rescued me when I first confronted making dinner for adults

“Thought I’d try to give you a rough outline of how to make a budget.”

And there were plenty in which she wrote about her own fears, her own anxiety about the future, her own struggles to grow.

“Thanks for listening to me. I’m really in a mess. Trying to control what I probably should do with what I want to do. I know that it will work out.”

As I sift through the letters, though, the content of the letters is eclipsed by the fact of them. They are tangible evidence of who I was, who she was, and how we worked our way through the holding on and letting go between a mother whose nest was beginning to empty and a daughter whose start-up nest was a hot mess.

“You have to get a grip on yourself. You will NOT be alone for the rest of your life no matter what. The hardest thing is when you’re really are trying and you really feel that you are contributing and then you get so lonely and are shot down. I’m speaking from the heart. It just doesn’t have to be. You get ahold of yourself and stay hold no matter what and don’t let your stubborn determination get the best of you. Have a good week, Love, Mom.

In them was the determination to forge new relationships not just with me but with each of her offspring and other loved ones, to help us nurture connections with each other. They were her way of reconciling her determination to make us all independent with her desire that we all stay connected. They show that when she had a few minutes to herself, she thought of me, my siblings, all her loved ones, and got out her paper and pen. She started out more than one with “Just wanted you to have some mail.” We all knew that some got longer letters some weeks than others; some weeks were tougher than others. Sometimes, a letter was meant to be shared as was the case with this one to me and my son sometime in 1981:

“Hi, I love you and I hope your respective lives are moving onward and upward. Happily, Hastily, Mom/Gramma”

Over the years, the letters helped to weave the fabric connecting all who received them. We can lob a standard quote, “Have the courage of your own convictions” to a stepbrother or sister and they can laugh and toss back, “And poco a poco” or “Don’t lose perspective.”

We chuckle, but we hear her. Even now, we hear her.

Happy Monday, Mom. And Happy Birthday.

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mom card 2014

A Mother’s Day collage of Monday Letters